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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Christmas at Sea/Sting

We are now on the cusp of the holiday season, and new offerings of seasonal music have been arriving for weeks. Among these is a collection from Sting called If On A Winter's Night.... It's not a holiday album in the usual sense, but a few of the songs specifically address Christmas, including a selection called Christmas At Sea. The lyrics are from a poem of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, from his 1890 collection Ballads, and have been set to music attributed to Sting and harpist Mary Macmaster. Both poem and song tell of a sailor battling the elements aboard ship, within sight of the town where he was born--close enough to see the snow on the roofs and the smoke from the chimneys, and even smell the meals as they're prepared. The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer/For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)/This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn/And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born. "I was attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem 'Christmas at Sea' because it describes so well the powerful gravitational pull of home that Christmas exerts on the traveller," Sting writes in the liner notes. "When Mary Macmaster started to sing the Gaelic song 'Thograinn Thograinn', a women’s working song from the Isle of Skye, I thought the melody would make a perfect counterpoint for the longing of Stevenson’s sailor..." The song depicts the sailor's concern for his aging parents, sitting by their fire in the town above and worrying about the son who has gone to sea. However, once the ship is out of danger, the poem carries that theme through to a final, wistful stanza not included in the song: And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me/As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea/But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold/Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

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